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Waiting to live

Dan A O’Brien

This Hostel Life, by Melatu Uche Okorie, Virago Press, 112pp, €10, ISBN: 978-0349012902

The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote: “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” One can see then why the Nigerian-Irish writer Melatu Uche Okorie, who spent over eight years in the direct provision system, turned to literature. Her slim but weighty short story collection This Hostel Life tells of that experience. First published in 2018 by Skein Press, Ireland’s new platform for minority writers, the book is now being republished by the prestigious Virago Press.

It is a hostile life indeed for the inhabitants of the title story’s provision centre, a Kafkaesque existence of endless waiting and enforced idleness. Those who speak up about conditions are often “randomly” transferred to other hostels. There is also deep suspicion between the various national and ethnic groups, with those of the Congo dubious of the dominant Nigerians, the Nigerians distrustful of one another, and the asylum seekers as a whole at odds with the Irish management and Eastern European staff. In her story, Okorie creates a microcosm of modern Irish society, proclaiming itself free and equal but in reality riven by economical and racial hierarchies.

Yet even in a system that seems designed to prevent community formation, relationships, ephemeral and transient though they are, develop between the occupants. The Congolese protagonist is warned away from the Nigerians by compatriots, but befriends them none the less, noting perceptively: “But now, me I know no one is good complete and no one can do you bad like your own people.” Okorie has a sharp eye for the small human kindnesses that can momentarily compensate for existential cruelties; she also has a deft ear for the linguistic creativity that is the inevitable outflow from these modern towers of Babel. For instance, her heroine cannot work out the difference between “me” and “I”, and so uses both, a linguistic trait that suggests her split identity as a migrant.

The star of the book is “Under the Awning”, an intricate story within a story, told from the point of view of an asylum seeker who has joined a writing class and must temper her fiction to conform with Irish people’s stereotypes of migrants, and of themselves. The narrator tells of her experiences with blunt Irish racism, and more covert, even subconscious, types of exclusion. Her story excites a wave of self-defensive criticism from her fellow writers, who question her use of the second person, her lack of positive Irish characters, and her “self-loathing and self-hatred”. Always eager to please and to fit in, the narrator rewrites and mutilates her story, by suggesting that the bigotry she faced was probably just a figment of her paranoid imagination and, if real, her own fault anyway. In an attempt to defend themselves against a perceived criticism, her readers within the story in fact prove their bias. Readers outside the story too are left feeling unsettled by the writer’s ability to get under the skin.

The final story, “The Egg Broke”, is set in early colonial Nigeria, and addresses the Igbo tradition that regarded newborn twins as abominations and sentenced them to be killed and buried in the forest. It is ground covered previously by Achebe, but Okorie maps the trauma from the mother’s perspective with an unparalleled psychological acuity: “I have walked fearlessly through great forests, crossed deep rivers and marched into sacred places, my breasts heavy with milk and a mixture of their blood and mine dripping down my legs.” The mother treads the space between two worlds, her village which has rejected her and the ominous encroachment of empire: “I will even try the strangers’ religion if it will bring back my sons.” The story suggests she will find belonging in neither place.

Okorie’s collection also exists between two worlds, the migrant’s ever-present dilemma of here and there. It suggests a powerful talent finding her voice, marshalling cacophonous sounds that range over centuries and continents. The book ends with an unvarnished condemnation of the direct provision centre by Liam Thornton, a law lecturer at UCD: “Convicted of no crime, the system of enforced dependency and institutionalisation reminds me of the crueller and less understanding Ireland of the borstal, the Magdalene laundry, the mother and baby home, the mental institution.”

Okorie’s book joins the illustrious Irish literary tradition of tales of imprisonment, allowing us to peer in through the barred windows of a prison not used to control the Irish, as in the past, but to control who is Irish and who is not.

1/7/2019

Dan O’Brien’s book Fine Meshwork: Philip Roth, Edna O’Brien and Jewish-Irish Literature is to be published by Syracuse University Press in August and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y3fkcb93).

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